For years really intelligent people – too smart for their or their game’s own good, really – have been ruining baseball. Now, it seems, there is a hint of high-heat hope that at least one of these really intelligent, successful people indeed realizes that the game of baseball needs help.
When Theo Epstein announced that he was leaving his role as President of the Chicago Cubs this week, the man who ended lifelong World Series droughts in both Boston and Chicago, acknowledged that the game that’s been at the center of his life and livelihood has issues.
You read that right, a Major League Baseball insider, the most successful team-building architect of this or maybe any generation after his nearly two decades with the Red Sox and Cubs, spoke openly about the obvious issues facing the game of baseball.
“It’s the greatest game in the world,” Epstein said Tuesday. “But there are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving, and I take some responsibility for that because the executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game, and the entertainment value of the game.”
This isn’t a young would-be fan complaining about the pace of play. Nor an aging loyalist lamenting how the sport has somehow turned what were once two of its most exciting aspects – strikeouts and homeruns – into all-too-common occurrences.
Rather, this is one of the brightest, most accomplished minds the game of baseball has ever seen making a refreshingly honest admission.
“Clearly, the strikeout rate’s a little bit out of control, and we need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give fans more of what they want,” Epstein continued.
God bless you, Theo. And not just for ending 86 years of misery. Thank you for saying what we’ve all been saying for years.
So now what?
As the old adage goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step. It’s a first step that so many in the game of baseball, from players up through the Commissioner’s office, have seemed so hesitant to take.
Focus on finances and TV contracts rather than the clearly dying passion of its fan base has left many whistling past the graveyard while simultaneously burying their heads in the sand.
Not Epstein, though. As he embarks on some time off before diving into what he calls the “third phase” of his career, Epstein pulled no punches.
Could Epstein and his comments be a catalyst for changes in the game? Will his words be more than words, possibly resonating with others inside the game? Could he even be a future candidate for MLB Commissioner with an eye on repairing what he helped destroy?
What can even be done to fix baseball?
Pitch clocks? It’s a start.
How about cutting a couple innings off the game? It’s drastic, but it was good enough for double-headers this COVID-19 season and has worked at lower levels of baseball for years. Think about it. A quality start could transition right into a closer’s save situation. The game would include just the two best pitchers on the roster and eliminate the need for all those middle relievers and specialization pitching changes.
Maybe go back to a game and a pay structure that doesn’t entice every player to hit home runs or strike out opposing batters. Pitch to contact. Hit for average. Such novel concepts.
Who knows what the specific answers really are and no one man is likely to solve all that ails baseball, but at least Epstein knows there is a problem. The sport he loves has lost its way. He and other really smart – again, too smart – people pushed it off course. But he, at least, sounds like a man who wants to do something about it.
Baseball was once America’s Pastime. Those days are gone.
It may never be able to challenge football for sporting supremacy or even have the same kind of action as basketball.
But it can be better. At the very least it can be fun again.
Epstein knows it. He had the cache and conviction to say as much this week.
Now let’s hope that he and others of his Ivy League-educated, numbers-driven ilk find a way to do something about it before it’s too late.
Epstein has done the impossible twice already in his career by bringing World Series titles back to Boston and Chicago.
Here’s hoping the third time is a charm in the third phase of his career and he finds a way to help bring the fun back to baseball.
It’s probably his biggest challenge yet.
Good luck, Theo!